The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
At the moment there are few greater clichés in the media than the freaking out single woman on the cusp of 30. Of course clichés are clichés for a reason worth exploring even through the lens of just one or two women as in Lola Versus. Unfortunately while the intention behind Lola Versus isn't that we should all be happily married by the age of 30 it still fits into the same rubric of all those "Why You're Not Married" books.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) has a gorgeous fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and they live in a giant loft together the kind of dreamy NYC real estate that seems to exist primarily in the movies. Just as they're planning their gluten-free wedding cake with a non-GMO rice milk-based frosting Luke dumps her. It's cruelly sudden — although Luke isn't a cruel man. Lola finds little comfort in the acerbic wit of her best friend the eternally single Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones) who is probably delighted to see her perfectly blonde best friend taken down a peg and into the murky world of New York coupling. Lola and Luke share a best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) a messy-haired rumpled sweetheart who is kind and safe and the inevitable shelter for Lola's fallout. Her parents well-meaning and well-to-do hippie types feed her kombucha and try to figure out their iPads and give her irrelevant advice.
Lola Versus is slippery. Its tone careens between broad TV comedy and earnest dramedy almost as if Alice is in charge of the dirty zingers and Lola's job is to make supposedly introspective statements. Alice's vulgar non-sequiturs are tossed off without much relish and Lola's dialogue comes off too often as expository and plaintive. We don't need Lola to tell Henry "I'm vulnerable I'm not myself I'm easily persuaded" or "I'm slutty but I'm a good person!" (Which is by the way an asinine statement to make. One might even say she's not even that "slutty " she's just making dumb decisions that hurt those around her just as much as she's hurting herself.)
We know that she's a mess — that's the point of the story! It's not so much that a particularly acerbic woman wouldn't say to her best friend "Find your spirit animal and ride it until its d**k falls off " but that she wouldn't say it in the context of this movie. It's from some other movie over there one where everyone is as snarky and bitter as Alice. You can't have your black-hearted comedy and your introspective yoga classes. Is it really a stride forward for feminism that the clueless single woman has taken the place of the stoner man-child in media today? When Lola tells Luke "I'm taken by myself. I've gotta just do me for a while " it's true. But it doesn't sound true and it doesn't feel true.
In one scene Lola stumbles on the sidewalk and falls to the ground. No one asks her if she's okay or needs help; she simply gets up on her own and goes on her way. It's a moment that has happened to so many people. It's humiliating and so very public but of course you just gotta pick yourself up and get where you're going. In this movie it's a head-smackingly obvious metaphor. In one of the biggest missteps of the movie Jay Pharoah plays a bartender that makes the occasional joke while Lola is waiting tables at her mom's restaurant. His big line at the end is "And I'm your friend who's black!" It would have been better to leave his entire character on the cutting room floor than attempt such a half-hearted wink at the audience.
Lister-Jones and director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay for Lola Versus as they did with 2009's Breaking Upwards. Both films deal with the ins and outs of their own romantic relationship in one way or another. Breaking Upwards a micro-budget indie about a rough patch in their relationship was much more successful in tone and direction. Lola Versus has its seeds in Lister-Jones' experience as a single woman in New York and is a little bit farther removed from their experiences. Lola Versus feels like a wasted opportunity. Relatively speaking there are so few movies getting made with a female writer or co-writer that it almost feels like a betrayal to see such a tone-deaf portrayal of women onscreen. What makes it even more disappointing is how smart and likable everyone involved is and knowing that they could have made a better movie.
This week marks the release of Hugo, a quasi-kids movie that, surprisingly, Martin Scorsese directed (in 3D!). Almost as oddly, last week’s big release, the teen-angst adaptation The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, was helmed by the very “adult” Bill Condon. They’re the latest examples of filmmakers surprising audiences by taking jobs that we’d never expect them to based on careers and expectations they’ve built. Here are some others.
Kenneth Branagh, Thor
Branagh was probably just about the last person we would’ve ever expected to direct summer 2011’s Blockbuster Tour kickoff, but he turned in maybe the best – even if not the most lucrative – film of the season in Thor. The closest Branagh had ever come to a Thor-size affair was Frankenstein in 1995, and that wasn’t even on the same planet as the Marvel adaptation in terms of budget and expectations. Aside from his much more prolific acting resume, Branagh had made a career, directorially, out of Shakespeare adaptations. Perhaps he found the Bard in Thor, which was undoubtedly better because of his involvement.
Francis Ford Coppola, Jack
Apocalypse Now. The Godfather. The Conversation. Jack?? The obscenely, almost incomprehensibly awful PG-13 dramedy is probably the most out-of-character entry on any director’s resume, ever, and it signaled where Coppola was in his career: the trough. The Robin Williams-starrer had themes that Coppola had previously mined into gold, but it’s almost as if the worst director in Hollywood helmed Jack and put Coppola’s name on it.
Alfonso Cuaron, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
It’s no wonder that the great Cuaron is behind the darkest entry in the Harry Potter franchise, but it is a wonder that he took/landed the job in the first place – and it’s the ultimate testament to his ability and range as a filmmaker. Up to that point, Cuaron was a relatively little-known – certainly unknown to the Potter target audience – aside from his stylized update of Dickens’ Great Expectations and his art-house hit (to put it oxymoronically) Y Tu Mama Tambien, a controversial film because of its explicit sexual content. So … yeah, bold pick by Potter producers! And right after Azkaban, Cuaron returned to his routine activities with the dystopian masterpiece Children of Men.
Spike Lee, Inside Man
A perusal of Lee’s vast filmography quickly reveals the clear-cut anomaly: Inside Man. Almost all of his other films center around race or feature the theme prominently. Only Summer of Sam and to a lesser degree 25th Hour do not subscribe to Lee’s trademark focal point, but neither comes close to Inside Man in terms of being a full-on genre film, in this case a hardboiled, somewhat by-the-numbers (in the best way possible) whodunit. It also turned to be one of Lee’s best films, proving that he has a lot more to offer behind the camera than might’ve been previously thought.
David O. Russell, The Fighter
Once upon a time, David O. Russell seemed destined to become a beloved indie auteur a la Paul Thomas Anderson, thanks to his early, offbeat work, especially Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings. Then came the debacle on the set of I Heart Huckabees, and then … banishment – be it self-imposed or not – from Hollywood. When he finally returned after six years, clearly something had changed, probably for the better, because as solid as the movie was, it was a very linear, straightforward, almost conventional production (with no reports of on-set turmoil!) that seemed more Ron Howard than David O. Russell.
Steven Soderbergh, Ocean’s Franchise
Soderbergh had dabbled in mainstream fare before 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven – and it’s been probably more so since then that he has tackled more exploratory, out-there projects – but the fact that he will be forever associated with the biggest A-lister cash-grab maybe ever is the ultimate irony for someone who is otherwise very indie-inclined, if not altogether impossible to pin down. At least Soderbergh seemed like he was trying with Ocean’s Eleven, though; Twelve and Thirteen must’ve been vacations too extravagant to pass up.
Robert Rodriguez, Spy Kids Franchise
The fact that Rodriguez, purveyor of cartoonish violence (Sin City, Planet Terror, et al.) and R-rated revenge (Desperado, et al.), directed anything with the word Kids in its title is shocking; the fact that he made a fairly lucrative franchise out of it? Shocking, and kinda impressive. It’d be like his buddy Quentin Tarantino directing the next Pixar movie. Actually, that’d be pretty awesome.
Sam Raimi, Spider-Man Franchise
Raimi turned out to be a very wise choice indeed for the Spidey franchise (at least for two out of the three films), but it initially seemed a bit of an odd fit. Before landing in the driver’s seat of one of the biggest properties in Hollywood, Raimi wasn’t exactly an A-list director; rather, he had more or a cult following, thanks primarily to his beloved Evil Dead movies, and in the years leading up to Spider-Man – post-Evil Dead trilogy – his output (i.e., The Quick and the Dead, For Love of the Game and The Gift) and its quality was more all-over-the-map than ever.